Bill Bachman had the perfect Washington career. He was a partner at Williams & Connolly, consistently ranked as the city’s top law firm. Lunches came from the firm’s beautiful attorney dining room. He had a closet full of suits with his name embroidered in the lapel. He specialized in anti-trust cases, environmental crimes and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. His salary? Let’s just say that life was comfortable.
Bachman also had some nagging doubts. That he wasn’t taking advantage of his greatest talents. That his career wasn’t as satisfying as it should have been. And that he couldn’t keep telling his kids to pursue their creative passions if he wasn’t following his own advice.
This is a classic Washington cliche: the technical writer who wants to be a novelist, the GS-14 who was supposed to be a musician, the journalist who still thinks about selling cheese. It’s daunting to press pause somewhere in middle age, to sprint back through time to that dream job you left in your 20s. Bachman went for it.
“I did step off the treadmill. I did step off that treadmill to do what I wanted to do, and that’s a head-scratcher for some people in D.C.,” Bachman said recently. “So one day you come in and you say, ‘What’s Bill doing? Is he at Williams & Connolly?’ ‘No, he’s the defensive coordinator at Catholic.’ That’s how my friends in the neighborhood found out. And they were like, ‘You son of a [gun], you’ve been talking about this for five years, and you did it. You really did it.’ “
He said this from the football office at Catholic University, where he’s no longer the team’s defensive coordinator. Just one year into Bachman’s full-time return to coaching, Catholic head coach Dave Dunn landed a job at Marshall. That was in May, which is when Bachman was promoted to interim head coach at the Division III school. Three games into his first head-coaching gig, Bachman, 55, remains undefeated.
And now Catholic University gear has replaced those embroidered suits. (“Less dry cleaning, that’s for sure,” his wife, Chris, joked.) The school’s DuFour Athletic Center doesn’t have a fancy dining room, but there’s a vending machine in the hallway and “a Potbelly across the street,” as Bachman pointed out with a grin. He shares his office with a graduate assistant and other defensive staffers, and his new salary is … well, he didn’t get a raise, anyhow.
Bachman, as it turns out, had never wanted to be a lawyer. He was the son of a New Jersey trial judge and Harvard law grad, but Bachman was an education major (and linebacker) at West Chester University who always knew he would become a coach. After college, he spent two years coaching at an NAIA school in Kansas, then became the outside linebackers coach at James Madison. (Charles Haley was a senior during his first season.) By 26, he was JMU’s special teams coordinator, and “I had the life I wanted,” Bachman said.
But in 1990 — his sixth season at the school — the Dukes went 5-6 and the staff was fired. A few promising young football coaches were dabbling in law at the time; Terry Bowden earned a law degree, and Rick Neuheisel was on his way. Bachman thought such a move would make him more attractive to schools, and he planned to continue coaching during his studies.
The next few years overturned those plans. Bachman applied to Georgetown “on a lark” and was surprised when he got admitted to the night school. (He actually served as Catholic’s defensive coordinator during his first year of law school 25 years ago, before quitting coaching to concentrate on his studies.)
After his first year, he earned a spot on the Georgetown Law Journal — another surprise for a football coach from West Chester. That put him in demand on the summer associate circuit, and he wound up at Sidley Austin, another prestigious firm. Then he landed a sought-after clerkship with federal judge Thomas F. Hogan, who encouraged him to pursue a job at Williams & Connolly, “and that put him on a trajectory,” Chris Bachman said. His career was taking off, except it wasn’t the career he had planned.
“You just get handed this brass ring,” Bachman said, “and your plans change.”
After eight years, he became a partner. His boxes of football files went into the basement, and he got his fix by coaching his kids’ soccer and baseball teams — with perhaps more than the usual intensity. (During halftime of one second-grade girls’ soccer game, while the other team worked on hair-braiding, Bachman had his team repeating, “I cannot score if I do not shoot.”)
Then, four years ago, his son graduated from Little League to travel baseball. Bachman didn’t want to be the kind of parent who latches on to every youth team. He also wasn’t sure what else to do.
“I don’t have any hobbies; all I do is coach and teach,” he said. “That’s all I know how to do. I don’t golf. I don’t relax. I don’t do anything.”
He had always figured he would get back to coaching or teaching eventually, so he got in touch with former coaching buddies. He met with high school officials, sent résumés to local colleges and high schools, and was eventually offered the tight ends position at Catholic. That job came with a small stipend, which he declined. The team practiced early in the morning, after which he showered and drove downtown, arriving at his office at 12th and G shortly after 9.
Before this, he had been unsure about leaving law based “on something that happened 25 years ago, some memory of what you were doing.” Maybe he wouldn’t even enjoy it. It turned out, though, that he still loved the strategy and the teaching, still loved working with kids. Coaching football still made him happy.
Which takes us back to his kids, and their dreams. Bachman’s daughter is a sophomore musical theater major at Ithaca with Broadway dreams, and he’s proud of her for not pursuing a dual degree or a backup plan. (“There’s no hedging in our lives,” he said. “The Bachman family, we don’t hedge.”) His son is a high school junior who wants to be a sports journalist (nooooooooo), and Bachman loves that, too. He always told them to go all-in, and he wasn’t doing it himself.
“He would say, ‘Jeez, it feels irresponsible that I would walk away from this high-paying job,’ ” said his wife, who encouraged him to make the move. “I basically said to him, ‘You preach to your kids all the time that you have to do something that brings you passion and fulfills you. You’re being more responsible to them by showing them that you live the way you’re teaching.’ “
So when the Catholic defensive coordinator job came open two years into his tenure as a volunteer, Bachman pursued it. And when Dunn offered it to him, Bachman submitted his resignation to the law firm, not even telling his fellow partners about his new gig. Some were concerned he was losing it; some offered him help. But when they found out he was leaving to chase that coaching dream, “I actually think the reaction was great respect,” said David Aufhauser, a partner at the firm.
Although his children initially wondered whether they would still have Christmas, the reaction at home was the same.
“I don’t know how else to say it except that’s the man that I met and fell in love with,” Chris said. “He gets up and he’s excited every morning to go do what he’s going to do. I think he feels like there’s a bigger purpose to it.”
“Living with him and watching football with him every weekend, I just knew that’s what he always wanted to do,” said Brian Bachman, their 16-year-old son. “It’s just cool to see him so relaxed and doing what he wants to do.”
The hours, of course, are still long. Bachman plans on taking one day off during the three-month football season, and his hours are as lengthy as they were at Williams & Connolly. There are still pressures; instead of staying up nights thinking about legal arguments, he might worry about injuries, or playbooks.
He said he’s less concerned about the scoreboard than about preparing his team, arguing that “to leave Williams & Connolly to come over here and try to win football games would be such a shallow existence.” Instead, he wants his players to leave school saying that he was their favorite teacher, and that he made a difference in their lives.
He also has made it clear to everyone that his goal is to lose the interim title, because being the Catholic University head football coach is now Bachman’s idea of the perfect Washington job.
“Right time, right place, right where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “That’s what I think. And I hope the people here think that. I hope the people I work for think that. But that’s what I think.”